I recently went to a Greek food Festival at a Greek Orthodox Church. This annual festival is a popular event around where I live. Besides some great gyros and lamb dinners, one of the stations in the festival is a bar where you can buy alcoholic beverages. That denomination not only allows drinking alcoholic beverages, but it also sells them at its fundraiser. Growing up as a Roman Catholic, I went to weddings and funerals where the alcohol flowed freely, if not at the service, then at the reception afterward.
While no Christian church that I know of teaches excessive drinking, many Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, and Bible churches all teach that drinking alcoholic beverages in moderation is acceptable. However, many churches, for example, The Wesleyan Church, Nazarene, and at least some Baptist churches, teach abstinence.
Complicating this issue somewhat is that some teach that alcohol in the Bible is not similar to alcohol sold today. According to this theory, the wine that is fermented in the Bible is much lower alcohol content. Alcohol fermented today is distilled, according to these teachers, and distillation dramatically increases the amount of alcohol in the drink. Because of this, they say that drinking is far more dangerous today than it was years ago.
The divisiveness of this issue is that the non-drinkers make derogatory statements about the drinkers and vice versa. This issue added to the many other dividing doctrines makes fellowship among all modern Christians less than that of original Christianity.
The biblical basis of drinking alcohol
Abstinence proponents use verses like these to substantiate their case:
Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; And whosoever erreth thereby is not wise. Prov 20:1
Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that tarry late into the night, till wine inflame them! Isaiah 5:11
Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink;Isaiah 5:22
The preceding verses all decry the potential tragedy of alcohol. The verses are clear that alcohol can make a fool of a person. “Strong drink a brawler” points to the demeanor of some people when they use substantial amounts of alcohol. The next verse talks about how a great man of God will not drink.
For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.Luke 1:15
Alcohol abstinence preachers take verses like the preceding to say that all people should not drink strong drink, not just the person (John the Baptist) referenced in the verse.
Proponents of the moderate use of alcohol use the following verses to say that drinking in moderation is the biblical standard. Notice that the first verse not only allows for drinking a little one, but it encourages the practice.
Be no longer a drinker of water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.1Tim 5:23
Obviously, Timothy was having some sort of problem with his stomach and other infirmities, the kind of which is not specified. Nevertheless, Timothy was told by Paul to drink a little wine. This practice is far more, common than a lot of people nowadays realize. In many countries, there is an abundance of drinkable water. But in other places of the world, and even in civilized countries centuries ago this was not the case. Drinking water is the cause of a lot of diseases, including a lot of stomach problems. To avoid this, people drank alcohol. Alcohol is fermented, alcohol is a form of drink available that doesn’t cause the stomach problems caused by drinking impure water. Additionally, alcohol in moderate use can be used to improve health, as well as reduce stress. The next verse that we will look at clearly defines the limits of acceptable alcohol use by Christians.
And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Eph 5:18KJV
This verse do not say “do not drink wine”, it says “be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess”. Here we have another example of alcoholic guidance. This time it’s stating the limit, which is to not be drunk.
More verses used in substantiating the use of alcohol is the marriage feast at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.
And when the ruler of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and knew not whence it was (but the servants that had drawn the water knew), the ruler of the feast calleth the bridegroom,
and saith unto him, Every man setteth on first the good wine; and when men have drunk freely, then that which is worse: thou hast kept the good wineJohn 2:9-10
Here it is clear that Jesus, himself must have endorsed the use of wine, or else he never would have turned water into wine. These verses enforce the use of wine in a celebration. People for millennia have had a few drinks at a celebration, and these verses endorse that practice.
The very real implication in the gospels is that Jesus not only created wine at Cana he drank wine with publicans and sinners.
Some people say that the wine that Jesus created is not the same as wine today because wine in those days was mildly fermented and the alcohol content was much less. That explanation looks suspect even in these verses because of what it says in verse ten where most people put out a poor wine after the people have drunk freely, suggesting that after people have drunk some amount of wine they have less mental capacity to determine the difference, which is a sign of intoxication.
Investigating this last point further, the following verses are used to substantiate that even if biblical wine was less alcoholic than modern beverages, it still was able to intoxicate, even to the point of a stupor.
come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.
And they made their father drink wine that night: and the first-born went in, and lay with her father; and he knew not when she lay down, nor when she arose.
And it came to pass on the morrow, that the first-born said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.
And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he knew not when she lay down, nor when she arose.Gen 19:32-35
When a person drinks wine to the point where they are in such a state that they don’t know that they are having sexual relations, let alone incestuous relations, they are extremely intoxicated. This wine was intoxicating!
There are numerous other places in the Bible where it is obvious that people are intoxicated from wine. The verses that the abstinence proponents use, for example, all point to the negative aspects of intoxication. So, even if it is true that biblical wine had a smaller alcohol content than modern wine, it is a moot point because the wine did have enough alcohol in it to intoxicate. The defining point in excessive alcohol use is drunkenness, drinking to the point of excess where a person’s mental capacity is disabled, where they no longer submit to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and as a result, make errors in judgment. It doesn’t matter how much alcohol is in the wine, it matters whether or not a person is drinking and still under the influence of the Spirit or not.
There is No Law Against Having a Drink
Lastly, despite the references the abstinence crowd uses to substantiate their claim that the bible says not to drink, what is missing is a law from the law of Moses. There is this reference in Leviticus:
Drink no wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, that ye die not: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations:Lev 10:9
This admonition clearly only refers to not drinking when going to the tent of meeting, not to other times of the day.
There is this reference in Numbers:
Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall make a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself unto Jehovah,
he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any juice of grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or dried.Num 6:2-3
But this verse specifically talks only about those that make the vow of the Nazirite. If there were laws that said not to drink, they would look like this: Thou shalt not take wine or strong drink. That verse doesn’t exist.
In fact, “strong drink” was part of the drink offering:
And the drink-offering thereof shall be the fourth part of a hin for the one lamb: in the holy place shalt thou pour out a drink-offering of strong drink unto Jehovah.Num 28:7
The fact that “strong drink” was part of an offering is an endorsement of strong drink rather than an indictment against it.
There is a clear divide among Christian groups about the use of alcohol. Abstinence proponents seem to focus entirely on all of the warning verses about the excessive use of alcohol and ignore the verses about the proper use of alcohol. It is a sin, a mistake, an error to get drunk. When people are drunk they make serious errors in judgment. Lot’s example is a tragic example of getting drunk and doing some serious sinning. However, to ignore the positive use of something because of the possibility of improper use is a perversion of good sense. Throughout the Bible, the proper use of alcohol is explained and given with examples. The moderate use of alcohol is not only allowed, but encouraged in the Bible in a certain circumstances. And the argument that wine in biblical times was different, less alcoholic, or almost plain grape juice ignores the writings where it is plain that biblical wine put people into a stupor.
Nevertheless, there has always been an ascetic element that seeks to ban alcoholic beverages and there is no reason to believe that it will go away.
(c) 2009-2021 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.